After years of delays by elected officials struggling with what they perceive as an “unfunded mandate” and a reluctance to spend money in this tough economy, you finally received approval to replace all your radios to comply with the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate. You purchase the new radios, program them with the new interoperability channels and modify your FCC license to reflect narrowband emissions. But when you complete the distribution and installation, you discover that you’re short 23 front-line radios. And you’re out of budget funds.
This is one example that illustrates why inventorying your radio equipment is so important. Other reasons include rebanding (for 800 MHz users), narrowbanding (for VHF/UHF users), grant reporting, and development of tactical, regional and statewide interoperability plans. Still, many agencies postpone inventorying radio assets—because of uncertainty about how to proceed or because the project seems so overwhelming. By arming yourself with the knowledge of why inventorying is crucial and following the steps described here, the process can be less daunting.
The Benefits of Inventorying
Although inventorying your radio equipment is admittedly a time-consuming task, knowing where every piece of your equipment is located, its capabilities, its condition and other factors is crucial. If you haven’t finished your rebanding process, you’ll need to know exactly which of your equipment is eligible for replacement and which can be upgraded. If you’re preparing for narrowbanding, you’ll need to know which of your equipment is capable of being upgraded through firmware or simple reprogramming, and which equipment must be replaced entirely.
Inventorying your equipment is also an integral part of interoperability planning. If you’re headed toward P25, you’ll need to know which equipment items can be upgraded or reprogrammed and which require replacement. For fire departments with radios featuring push-to-talk ID, integrating an accurate radio inventory with the documentation of unit IDs and the radios to which they are assigned simplifies this part of complying with NFPA standards 1500 and 1561.
Many radio systems and subscriber units provide the means for the system manager to disable a lost or stolen radio over the air, and having an accurate inventory enables the system manager to do so while complying with recommended security practices. Without an accurate inventory, the radio cannot be identified and disabled unless and until the unauthorized party actually transmits on the system. An accurate and up-to-date inventory is a mandatory element when assessing your future needs against your current capabilities. Until you have a truly accurate picture of the capabilities and limitations of your current system, you cannot meaningfully conduct future planning.
Minimize the Pain; Maximize the Gain
There is no substitute for a physical inventory of your radio equipment. Admittedly, a physical inventory is the most time-consuming method, but it’s by far the most accurate and comprehensive. With that said, this tutorial will describe the recommended approach to conducting a comprehensive physical inventory.
1. Determine the scope of your inventory process. If you haven’t inventoried recently or don’t have a comprehensive inventory at hand, you’ll want to perform a true enterprise-wide inventory. If you do have a recent, comprehensive inventory, congratulations! Your process will be a much simpler validation and recordation of any added, modified or removed assets, through using this same process. An enterprise-wide inventory includes mobiles, portables, control stations, base stations, repeaters, pagers, and, if your department is responsible for them—cell phones along with their respective desktop and vehicular chargers.
2. Determine all the data elements you’ll want to collect. This is not a process you’ll want to repeat if you think of something new later, so this step is truly crucial to a successful project. If you think a data element may be of interest now or in the future, include it in your inventory. See the sidebar (right) for suggested data elements for collection.
3. Determine and list sites for the physical inventory. This may include fire stations, police stations, substations and storefronts, dispatch centers, hospitals, public works facilities, transmitter sites, satellite receiver sites and any other location where a radio asset is located—including, of course, your complete vehicle fleet.
4. Consider using a Web-based tool in your process to facilitate and streamline data capture. This is generally an online database where your team can enter the data directly from each inventory site. The tool can also provide for controlled self-reporting of inventory changes by users in the future, and may have other uses as well. Web-based tool development should parallel database development (Step 5).
5. Build the database repository. Using your comprehensive list of identified data elements, build the database itself. Any database program will work, but many agencies use Microsoft Excel for its simplicity and widespread familiarity among personnel. If using an online inventory tool, work with your internal Web team or vendor to have the online database created and available before embarking on the actual inventory visits. When possible, use drop-down windows (Excel or Web database) to select the data. This will reduce errors and expedite data entry.
6. Determine the inventory team. Although it may be tempting to draft assistance from other available personnel (such as a police officer or firefighter on light duty), your inventory team will need to consist of personnel who are very radio savvy, understand the meaning and importance of all the data elements they will be collecting, and are committed to doing a thorough and professional job. Remember to include your radio shop in the inventory process. They can assist in determining the proper numbers to document. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between a model number, a component number or a date code. The most obvious number is not always the one you want.
7. Assess your ability to read the radios you will be inventorying. Many newer radios will allow you to put the radio into a test or diagnostic mode to read the serial number and firmware version through a key combination. Most modern radios have a front panel connection to a laptop using programming software and a cable that will allow reading of virtually all radio data. Reading radio data via laptop may be less time consuming than removing the mobile from the vehicle so you can see the model and serial numbers. Reading and saving the radio “personality” file will provide a comprehensive and nonambiguous collection of all relevant information.
Sometimes the physical serial number on the tag and the electronic serial number read out with the radio service software won’t match. This can occur if the radio’s main transceiver circuit board has been replaced. Prepare for this by having a hardware and software column for the serial number.
8. Ensure the requisite programming software is installed on all laptops that will be used in the inventory process and that each laptop is accompanied by the necessary cables to connect to any radios they might encounter. Obviously, you’ll need to collect data visually for any radios that aren’t computer-readable.
Be aware that reading the radio with a newer software version may cause it to be unreadable with earlier software versions. Some radios may need to be flash upgraded to be read with newer software, which in turn may have its own unique requirements for a flash upgrade. Check with your vendor or radio shop for details.
9. Using your site list, coordinate with the appropriate person at each facility to determine the best date and time for your visit. Provide that contact with written information about your visit, including what you will need to see and do, what access you will need, who you will need to meet, what equipment must be made available during your visit and any other logistical needs you might have. Follow up with your contact at least one more time in advance of your visit.
When inventorying involves volunteer fire or rescue personnel, schedule your visit when a maximum number of personnel will be on site, such as training or meeting night. Remind all personnel about the importance of attending that session with any assigned radio assets, such as pagers or portables. Coordinating your visit thoroughly in advance will maximize your effectiveness on each trip. However, understand that personnel absences may require revisits to the site.
Consider integrating the radio inventory with the pager encoding plan if tone or voice paging is used. The pager encoding plan documents the page code combinations and lists the serial number and assigned staff for each pager. This information is especially useful when a pager needs to be replaced and the new pager programmed with the same page codes and features. Reading and saving the pager radio “personality” file is the optimum documentation.
10. Conduct your inventory visits. Physically inspect each radio, obtain all the data elements you need and update the database record for each asset on the spot. If your agency uses asset tags already, be prepared to replace any that are illegible or missing.
If you don’t already use asset tags, consider doing so. Use of bar codes or Quick Response (QR) codes on asset tags has many advantages. Future inventories can then be conducted with a bar code or QR code reader much more quickly. QR codes are two dimensional or matrix bar codes that can carry text data, a URL or other data. You can even have a QR code that takes you directly to the Web-based inventory page for a particular radio.
Once a unit has been inventoried, be sure to properly mark it so that it’s not counted twice. Small, circular, colored stickers from an office supply store work well for this task. These should be protected by using clear or colored nail polish or other sealant, such as paint. For portable radios or pagers, place the sticker in a location where it will not be easily removed, such as inside the battery casing.
11. Populate the database. If multiple personnel are conducting inventory, you will need to carefully manage database synchronization. This task is automatically completed for you if you are using a Web-based inventory tool that populates in real time. Regardless of method, the master database must be carefully managed to avoid duplication, unintentional overwriting of records and other risks involved with managing any database.
12. Schedule and perform any necessary revisits to capture all your needed data. Be extra thorough in coordinating revisits to ensure that you can collect and record all missing data on a single revisit.
13. Assess your success. Determine what, if any, gaps exist in your database now and make a plan for obtaining that missing data. Take some time to collect lessons learned so you can improve on your inventorying process next time.
14. Develop policies and procedures for maintaining and updating your inventory. Ensure that part of the process for receiving newly purchased radios includes inventory as a first step, including placing asset tags on each item if you use them. Make sure your procedures include instructions for radio users to report any loss or theft, transfer of equipment between vehicles or personnel or any other actions that might affect inventory.
15. Use that data you’ve so painstakingly collected! Identify any radios that need any near-term firmware upgrades or reprogramming that couldn’t be accomplished during the inventory process and schedule that activity. Identify any radios that need immediate replacement. Assess your readiness for any future plans, such as rebanding, narrowbanding or P25 migration. Consider each of the following areas in your assessment:
Assess what you need to do about narrowbanding (VHF/UHF). Jan. 1, 2013, is the FCC’s deadline for narrowbanding. Now that you’ve completed your inventory, use the model number to determine how many of your radios are narrowbanding capable and how many are P25 capable. You need to budget right now for reprogramming, upgrading or replacement of radios so you can be in compliance with the narrowbanding deadline. When assessing narrowbanding readiness, make sure your radios are capable of handling new “splinter” frequencies and not just 12.5 kHz spacing on your existing channels.
If you’re considering P25, now is a good time to make that move. You don’t want to narrowband next year only to need to do a wholesale replacement of your fleet a year later. You should also know that federal grants for radios require grant-funded radios to be P25 compliant or for you to have extremely strong justification as to why non-P25 radios are better for interoperability in your region. (If you’ve already narrowbanded, congratulations!)
Although not formally a part of a radio inventory, you may want to inventory the status of your FCC licenses. A person capable of implementing a comprehensive radio inventory is generally a good candidate for managing the FCC licenses. With respect to narrowbanding ensure that the FCC narrowband emission designation has been acquired or an application has been submitted. License status is the most readily available means for the FCC to monitor narrowband compliance.
Use the data in rebanding (800 MHz) if you haven’t already done so. In your rebanding negotiations, one of the key items is determining which of your current radios can be rebanded and which ones need to be replaced. Armed with knowledge, you can ensure that any replacement radios you may be offered are indeed equivalent to your current stock. Rebanding does not reimburse the costs of a complete subscriber inventory, so agencies without an accurate inventory will have to provide a best estimate. This can ultimately delay the process if an adequate number of radios has not been ordered.
Maintain that inventory. Use it to educate your users about the importance of reporting any transfers of radios, and any lost, stolen or damaged radios so that repairs or replacements can take place. Knowing each radio’s complete personality is critical should you need to lock a stolen radio out of your system. The inventory is only as useful as it is up to date.
Use your data in grant applications. As mentioned earlier, grant criteria all but mandate P25 radios. You will need to know which of your current radios can continue to be used in a P25 environment. Even if you are not going P25, some of your neighboring agencies with whom you might operate mutual aid may be doing so.
Be proactive in budget planning. By knowing the date of manufacture of your radios, you can budget for an incremental replacement. Even if your equipment is up to date—narrowbanded or P25—you will need to do periodic replacements based on age. Knowing the age of each piece of equipment will allow you to plan and budget for replacement before a failure or support abandonment by the manufacturer. Date of manufacture is typically a portion of the serial number. Ask your equipment vendor how to extract this data.
Use your inventory to get the most from your service contract. Consider integrating the radio inventory with equipment service tracking. Use the inventory to accurately solicit and negotiate service contracts and then track services. Use the service records to identify and document problem radios or users. Compare services received to contract cost to assess contract value during renewal.
16. Consider developing an ongoing incremental replacement schedule of aging radios. The process is similar to replacement schedules IT departments create for the replacement of computer equipment. The objective is to enable incremental replacement rather than doing a wholesale replacement at great cost. Develop a year-by-year schedule, budget for this process and brief your elected officials or other governing body on your plan.
17. Armed with your inventory, begin your budgeting process for next year. Share a summary of your inventory with your users, your elected officials and other governing bodies. Take pride in a job well done and for providing a genuine service to your users and taxpayers. Having a solid inventory will demonstrate fiscal responsibility, good management and stewardship, and it will increase your credibility when seeking funding for future plans.
About the Author
Gary L. Oldham is a technical specialist with L.R. Kimball. He has been involved with public safety communications for more than 35 years as a police officer, fire manager, emergency manager, communications department head, and consultant. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. DHS Office of Interoperability and Compatibility, Statewide Interoperability Planning Guidebook, 2007, http://www.safecomprogram.govNRrdonlyres/18F02413-CC4D-41B2-9097-F5FF04E080C7/0/StatewidePlanningGuidebookFINAL.pdf.
2. SAFECOM/PSWIN Land Mobile Radio System Recommended Security Policy, http://www.safecomprogram.gov/NR/rdonlyres/3FA5F58D-D73F-4FE8-AE32-69DC52BCA85A/0/LMR_System_Recommended_Security_Policy.pdf.
Radio Inventory Checklist
1. Determine scope of inventory.
2. Determine database elements to collect.
3. Determine sites for physical inventory.
4. Determine if Web-based inventory needed as primary or adjunct tool.
5. If so, create in-house or secure from vendor/consultant.
6. Set up database.
7. Determine inventory team.
8. Determine radio reading/programming software needs.
9. Ensure database template & radio software installed on laptop(s) to be used for inventory and that all necessary cables are provided to inventory team.
10. Coordinate, schedule and publicize visits in advance.
11. Coordinate as needed with outside vendors or site owners/tenants for radio site access.
12. Make inventory visits.
13. Update database.
14. Schedule revisits as necessary or augment with Web-based inventory tool.
15. Assess success.
16. Determine if any data gaps exist, take remedial steps to collect missing data.
17. Develop policy for maintaining currency, distribute policy to all radio users.
- Identify radios that need near-term firmware updates, reprogramming or replacement.
- Identify longer-term replacement/upgrade needs.
- Identify ongoing aging/replacement plan and schedule.
- Begin budget process, backed up by current, valid data.
Capturing the Right Data
Information Needed for Your Equipment Inventory Database
A spreadsheet or database is an ideal tool to track your data collection. Building this database in advance for data collection will allow you to determine in advance the data you wish to collect, and will help ensure you don’t forget any data elements. Your database might contain items such as these for each piece of equipment being inventoried:
- Agency: Department in possession of the radio; e.g., Mason County Sheriff, Twin Oaks VFD, etc.
- Make: Manufacturer of the radio; Motorola, Icom, Tait, Relm, etc.
- Model: The standard nomenclature for the model, e.g., XTS5000, TM9155, etc.
- Model #: The manufacturer’s internal model number, often many seemingly random digits, which in part can tell you which features and options are included in the radio.
- Serial #: The manufacturer’s serial number.
- Type: Control station, portable, mobile, etc.
- Asset #: Your agency’s asset number affiliated with the radio, if any.
- Band(s): VHF, UHF, 800, etc.
- Condition: Create and use a consistent code to indicate the physical condition of the radio. For instance, a simple 1-5 scale, with 1 meaning “This radio should be replaced” to 5, meaning “Like new condition.”
- LOC1: Primary location to which this radio is assigned, e.g., “Fire Station 12.”
- LOC2: Specific location of radio, e.g., “Water Tender 12.”
- Channels: Number of channels in the radio (conventional only; trunked radios don’t use the traditional “channel” concept).
- MFG date: Date of manufacture, typically shown on a manufacturer’s plate.
- Firmware version: Version number and date of radio’s firmware.
- Radio ID: Push to talk or internal ID of radio.
- Alias: If an alias has been programmed for the radio, show it here (e.g., “Patrol 7”).
- Program: If your agency uses standard templates to program your radios, show to which template this radio has been programmed, e.g., “EMS Supervisor.”
- Notes: Free-form notes about the radio.
- Rebanded: For 800 MHz radios affected by Sprint Nextel rebanding, indicate whether this radio has already been rebanded or not. Alternately, if rebanding has not yet taken place in your area, indicate whether this make, model, and generation of radio is rebanding capable.
- NB capable: For VHF and UHF radios, indicate whether this model is capable of being rebanded through a firmware upgrade or simply through reprogramming (or not at all).
- Encryption capable: Yes or no.
- Encryption type: ADP, etc.
- Encryption enabled: Yes or no.
- Purchase date: Date radio was purchased, if known.
- Purchase price: Price paid for initial purchase of radio, if known. This may be difficult or impossible to capture on older radios, but is worth including in your database for tracking on all future purchases.
- Accessories: Holster, charger, speaker/mic, etc. either provided upon issuance or later purchased/added to the radio.
If you have additional data elements to capture, set up additional fields in the database rather than relying on input within the free-form “Notes” category. This extra step will ensure consistent data capture during the inventory process and easier, more accurate data retrieval later.
Originally published in Public Safety Communications magazine, Vol. 77(2):40-47, February 2011.